Reflection papers occupy a middle ground between academic writing in its pure form and more personal genres (e.g., a familiar essay), where the writer is left to his/her own devices when choosing format, language and structure.
On the one hand, it is highly subjective – the purpose of this task is to express your thoughts, ideas, emotions and/or feelings related to a particular experience. Depending on the course you take, the experience can be interpreted very broadly – it can be anything from an event in your life to a book you read. However, in English courses you will mostly deal with texts or something text-related: a book, an article, a movie etc. However, it can be something more unusual, like a personal experience of encountering a linguistic phenomenon (e.g., communicating with people speaking in a rare local dialect).
On the other hand, it is still an academic text, and as such, it has to follow certain rules concerning the choice of words, sentence structure, internal logic and general organization. You have to maintain a relatively strict academic tone and follow a traditional essay structure (although the degree of limitations can differ depending on the preferences of your instructor). Anyway, in this guide you will find all the necessary recommendations to write a reflection paper of your own.
Unless your instructor assigned you a topic, you will have to think of what you want to write. It is always an important step, but the success of a reflection paper is particularly dependent on the choice of topic. You have to express your personal opinions and impressions, and you can hardly do it well if you do not have anything particular to say about your subject. Therefore, start with looking for a topic that stirs something in you: a book you genuinely liked or disliked, an essay that changed your views on life, a piece of writing you find particularly beautiful. Here are some ideas that can help you narrow down your choices:
Eventually, you should end up with something like this:
What are the most important aspects of the experience you write about? Although a reflection paper should recount your personal experience, it does not mean that you can ramble. You have to identify the most crucial things about this experience. The easiest way to do it is to clarify what exactly you think about it asking yourself a series of questions. Some of them are:
An outline is a plan of your essay, including as many or as few details as you need to keep its organization in mind and be sure you will not forget to include everything you intend to write. Write down what parts your paper will contain, what you have to mention in each of them and how long each segment will be. Check the guidelines you received from your instructor and see if they include a word count (usually reflection papers are relatively short, 300 to 800 words). Jot down the approximate number of words in each segment – this way you will immediately see if you go into unnecessary detail about something.
A reflection paper can be structured in a number of ways, but a few elements usually remain unchanged:
A thesis statement is a central part of any academic paper. It is a short (usually a single sentence no longer than 30-35 words) statement of the main idea behind your paper. It may sound similar to the topic, but is different. The topic is the general outline of what you write about, e.g., “The Influence of The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton on My Outlook on Life”. The thesis statement is the statement you make in your essay, e.g., “I consider The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton to be the single most important book that formed my outlook on life”.
A reflection paper is an expression of your own thoughts and impressions. Do not try to imagine what your instructor wants you to write or how you are supposed to be feeling about a particular subject. Firstly, a significant portion of your peers will go along this path, and you do not want to write yet another paper that repeats what has been said a dozen times already. Secondly, when you try to imitate a point of view because you believe it will sound good, your writing looks unmistakably phony.
Even if you know your point of view to be unpopular, do not be afraid to express it – it will result in a better essay in the long run.
You are assigned to write a reflection paper not because your instructor is dying to know your opinion on a particular subject. You write it as a part of your course, to better understand a certain topic or to improve a certain skill. This is why you should relate the experience you write about to what you study or studied in class. For example, if you reflect on a specific text, you can mention how it relates to the literary theories discussed in class or use an analysis technique you learned during it.
Transitional words and phrases connect individual parts of the text, helping you steer the argument in a specific direction and introduce new topics and details. Although they do not carry independent semantic charge, they are invaluable for structuring and organizing your paper. Without them, your writing will look disjointed and choppy. Some of the most widely used transition words include “for example”, “therefore”, “thus”, “as a result”, but there are many others.
A reflection essay expresses your personal thoughts and ideas, but you still have to do it in a professional academic tone. “Personal” here does not mean the same tone you use in personal conversations with your friends. Your writing should be logical, well-structured and offer evidence whenever you make a statement. Here are a few considerations:
A reflection paper is, by definition, a rather personal type of writing. Your impression of a certain experience may touch upon things you do not normally discuss with other people. Although including them may seem like a good idea at the time (especially if they grant extra power to your argument), usually it is a better decision to avoid revealing too much about yourself. If you cannot avoid speaking about such experiences, try recounting them in more general terms.
Even if you write an unusually profound, original and thought-provoking paper, shabby grammar and spelling mistakes can undo this good impression in a matter of minutes. Before you submit your paper, make sure you carefully reread it looking for such blunders. The best practice is to do it more than once, each time focusing on a particular type of mistakes. When it comes to grammar, it may be wise to revise the paper backwards, from the end to the beginning, one sentence at a time. It helps you focus on individual sentences rather than see them as parts of larger structures.
Grammar checking tools are only marginally useful here – although they went a long way over the last decade or so, they still miss many types of mistakes and have trouble navigating complex sentences. Use them for superficial analysis, but do not rely on them too much.
Cut everything you do not need to drive your point home. Analyze your paper on all levels (words, sentences, paragraphs) and when you reread it, ask yourself, “Do I really need it?” This is why you do not have to meet the word count requirements when you finish the first draft of your assignment. If you have anything to say on the subject, you will usually end up exceeding it. However, if you write more than you ought to, you will have an opportunity to choose what to cut and retain only the best bits.
Although a reflection paper is primarily concerned with your own ideas and thoughts, an occasional quotation (especially from the source material) cannot hurt. Whenever you quote anything, make sure you properly refer to the source. Otherwise, you may be accused of plagiarism, even if you simply accidentally forget to use the quotation marks. Also, make sure you comply with the requirements of your formatting style, as their requirements can be dramatically different.
Reflection papers are particularly prone to gaps and mistakes in logic. As you recount a personal experience or impression, you write about something that is not necessarily based on objective evidence. Some connections between the input and the conclusions can be so natural for you that you may not realize that other people can think otherwise or draw different conclusions from the same facts. Ask somebody to read your paper and ask him/her if your logic is sound. If you have to give additional explanations for the reader to understand what you wanted to say, you probably have to make changes to the paper itself.
Writing a reflection paper in English may be a challenging task, but armed with this guide you will be able to weather it!